A woman with a toy gun surrounded the savings of the Bank of Beirut

BEIRUT (AFP) – A woman accompanied by activists waving what she said was a toy gun stormed a bank branch in Beirut on Wednesday, taking $13,000 of her embattled savings.

Sally Hafez told local TV channel Al-Jadeed that she needed money to fund her sister’s cancer treatment. She said she repeatedly visited the bank to ask for her money and was told that she could only get $200 a month in Lebanese pounds. Hafez said the toy gun belonged to her nephew.

“I once begged the branch manager for my money, and told him my sister was dying, and there wasn’t much time left,” she said in the interview. “I got to a point where I had nothing else to lose.”

Cash-strapped Lebanese banks have imposed strict limits on foreign currency withdrawals since 2019, restricting the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the small Mediterranean country’s economy continues to slide.

Hafez and activists from a group called the cry of depositors entered the BLOM BANK branch and stormed the director’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.

Hafez said she had a total of $20,000 of savings trapped in that bank. She said she had already sold many of her personal belongings, and had considered selling her kidney to fund her 23-year-old sister’s cancer treatment.

Nadine Nakhal, one of the bank’s customers, said the intruders “poured petrol everywhere inside, took out a lighter and threatened to ignite it.” She said the woman with the gun threatened to shoot the manager if she did not receive her money.

In a video posted live on her Facebook account, Hafez said she had no intention of doing any harm. “I didn’t break into the bank to kill anyone or set the place on fire,” she said. “I’m here to get my rights.”

Hafez has been celebrated as a hero across social media in Lebanon, as many in the small, crisis-hit country struggle to make ends meet and recover their savings. It encouraged others to take similar measures to recover their savings.

Some activists entered the bank accompanied by Hafez, while others demonstrated at the entrance. Witnesses said that Hafez eventually left with money in a plastic bag.

Security forces standing outside arrested several activists, including a man with what looked like a pistol. It was not immediately clear if this was a toy pistol.

Meanwhile, Alaa Khorshid, head of the depositors’ protest group, said that a man who communicates and coordinates with the group stormed a bank in the mountainous town of Aley to recover his beleaguered savings. Local media reported that the man entered Al Bahr Bank branch alone with his rifle without loading any shells, but he was unable to retrieve his savings before his arrest.

The two incidents happened weeks after a food delivery driver stormed another bank branch in Beirut and held 10 people hostage for seven hours, demanding tens of thousands of dollars from his trapped savings. Most of them praised him as a hero.

“There is no government, no plan for economic recovery, there are few reserves left,” Khurshid told the Associated Press, adding that people had no choice but to “take matters into their own hands.”

“These people have worked for decades, but not for rulers to build palaces while they can’t buy a bottle of medicine.”

On Wednesday evening, activists blocked a main road in Beirut outside a police barracks where two activists who had stormed the bank earlier in the day with Hafez were being held. The demonstrators demanded the immediate release of the two men.

Lebanon has been seeking for more than two years to implement major reforms in its dilapidated banking sector and economy. It has so far failed to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a recovery program that would unlock billions of dollars in international loans and aid to make the country viable again. Its government has struggled to function temporarily since May, and its recently elected parliament remains deeply divided.

Meanwhile, millions are struggling to deal with rampant blackouts and rising inflation.

“We need to put an end to everything that happens to us in this country,” Nakhal said. “Everyone’s money is stuck in the banks, and in this case, the person is sick. We need to find a solution.”

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